Archive for October, 2013

Net scalpers set off discussion of true fandom in terms of economics

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Can’t buy me love: What does Sir Paul think about the ticket prices to his Japan concerts? (photo MPL Communications Ltd.)

Several Japanese media have commented recently on how expensive tickets are on various Internet auction sites for the upcoming Paul McCartney shows. Sir Paul’s six-show Japan tour, including three Tokyo Dome concerts, slated for the middle of November sold out almost immediately after they went on sale in September. The highest face price for a ticket is ¥16,500, but tickets on the Yahoo auction site are going for as high as ¥400,000. What’s especially unnerving to some people is that these high prices have not been arrived at through the usual bidding process. The seller is simply setting a very high price and people are paying it.

This realization has led to calls for regulation of ticket prices on auction sites. According to one journalist writing in the Asahi Shimbun, who also happens to be a big McCartney fan (he didn’t get picked in the initial ticket lottery), if Net auctions are not regulated then only rich people will be able to buy tickets to the most popular concerts, thus squeezing out “true fans” of the artists who are performing. The journalist says that it’s obvious these expensive net tickets are being sold by dafuya (scalpers).

Many local governments have laws that limit the activities of scalpers who hang around venues selling secondhand tickets, though these are usually associated with public nuisance regulations (meiwaku jorei). The journalist says there should be laws limiting what scalpers can charge on the Internet. He also points out that scalping runs counter to the purposes of selling tickets over the net, a service he says was designed for people who bought tickets legitimately but for some reason can’t attend the show and need to find someone else who will buy the tickets. It is not for the purpose of making a profit.

Some promoters have come out in favor of cracking down on net scalpers. Rockin’ On, the magazine that sponsors and puts on Rock In Japan, the country’s biggest summer music festival, says that net auctions have become a problem for them, since the festival sells out fairly quickly and the audience is typically young, meaning they don’t have the money to pay the kind of prices net scalpers demand. Like the journalist, Rockin’ On’s president, veteran music critic Yoichi Shibuya, told Asahi that tickets for the festival should go to “people who really want to go” but end up in the hands of people “who can be called scalpers.” Shibuya says that Yahoo is shirking its responsibility by inadvertently helping scalpers fleece young music lovers.

However, a professor of economics at prestigious Waseda University told the paper that complaints about net scalpers ignore one vital component, namely, the market. Who is to say that the person who shells out 400,000 yen for a ticket to the McCartney show is any less a fan of the ex-Beatle than someone who claims to be but can’t afford that price? If the scalpers can get that much money for a single ticket, it means that the face prices of the tickets were too low to begin with.

In essence, tickets that are sold on the net will fetch their “natural” market price, whereas prices set by the promoters and venues can be artificially low, depending on the artist. What the professor seems to be saying is that net prices measure a true fan’s desire: even if the price of the ticket is higher than you can reasonably pay, if you really want to see that show, you’ll pay it. The real problem, he says, is that if tickets were actually sold this way, it would reflect badly on the artist, especially rock artists who tend to have the image of being heroes for the average person.

Say goodbye to plentiful, affordable shrimp

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Squeezed out: Shrimp tempura in a supermarket

Squeezed out: Shrimp tempura in a supermarket

Last week the national fast food chain Tenya, which specializes in tempura dishes, announced that it was discontinuing two of its most popular menu items effective Oct. 20: jotendon (¥580) and ebiten soba or udon (¥790). Both dishes feature prawns deep fried in batter — the former offers two big prawns on top of a bowl of rice, and the latter one big prawn in a bowl of either soba or udon noodles. The reason for the move is the skyrocketing price of shrimp. As a concession, Tenya will continue serving tendon (¥500), which only features one fried prawn on a bowl of rice, and introduce ebi oika tendon (¥590) — one prawn and one slab of squid on rice.

Tenya’s parent company, Royal Holdings, said in a statement that the Southeast Asian shrimp farms from which it buys its prawns have been hit with a disease called early mortality syndrome (EMS) that has decimated stocks, the result being that prices have doubled. The EMS plague affects shrimp prices all over the world, especially in the U.S., which consumes more shrimp than any other country. Since most shrimp farms are, almost by definition, ecologically destructive, the spread of disease is hardly surprising, and it isn’t certain if the industry will be able to recover.

That’s a serious problem for Japan, where shrimp, or ebi, has a special place in the national cuisine. Before the 1980s, tendon using prawns was considered an extravagant dish for the average Japanese person, and it remains one of the most popular meals to this day, beloved by all classes of people. Tendon is by far the most popular item on Tenya’s menu, with the now discontinued jotendon in fourth place, according to a recent report on TV Asahi. Moreover, the kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi) chain Sushiro has also announced that it will be suspending sales of many dishes that use shrimp due to the “worldwide shortage.” Family restaurants and convenience stores will also cut back on the number of products they sell that feature ebi.

The shortage has given rise to rumors that some Japanese restaurants and food makers have been using crayfish (zarigani) as a substitute for shrimp without telling customers. There are sushi restaurants in the U.S. that serve crayfish openly, but most Japanese people find the fresh water crustacean unappetizing. The American species of crayfish was brought to Japan by the U.S. military during the postwar occupation as a protein supplement, and now can be commonly found in rivers and streams. Japanese tend to be streotyped as able to eat almost anything but they’ve never taken to crayfish, which in the U.S. is normally eaten in the South.

It’s the kind of rumor that some restaurants would take seriously. Coincidentally or not, the Hankyu Hanshin Hotel group recently announced that it would provide refunds to anyone who purchased any of 47 dishes in its restaurants between 2006 and February of this year.

Apparently, the ingredients in these dishes weren’t as expensive as the restaurants claimed they were. Among the mislabeled dishes was shiba ebi, a high quality breed of domestic shrimp that costs ¥2,500 per kg wholesale. The restaurants were actually using a much cheaper breed, which only costs ¥1,400 per kg. The hotel group calculates that 78,775 people purchased these dishes during the time period cited. It has put aside ¥110 million for refunds, which begs the question: Do all those people still have their receipts?

Blood on the tracks: Who pays for deadly railway accidents?

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Don't look now

Don’t look now

One of Japan’s enduring urban legends is that railway companies demand compensation from families of people who commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of trains. Because the media doesn’t report such matters it isn’t easy to verify, but according to the Chunichi Shimbun railways “in principle” send bills to families of people who die in railroad “accidents” if the railroad is not at fault and the accident causes a delay that costs the railway money. The articles don’t say anything specific about suicides, however.

The subject of the piece is a case that was recently decided in Nagoya District Court. JR Tokai sued the family of a 91-year-old man from Obu City, Aichi Prefecture, who was hit by a train and killed while walking along the tracks of the Tokaido line in December 2007. JR Tokai was demanding ¥7.2 million from the family for losses incurred due to delays caused by the accident, which affected 27,000 passengers and 34 trains, forcing the railroad to provide alternate transportation, such as buses, to inconvenienced customers.

In court, JR Tokai’s lawyers said the company sent a bill to the family of the man “as it usually does in such matters,” but the family never responded, so they filed a lawsuit and in the end the judge awarded JR the full amount it asked for. The family will appeal.

At issue was the responsibility of the family in the actions of the old man, who suffered from dementia. Six years ago local welfare officials determined that the man required 24-hour supervision. The family placed him in an institution several days a week, but on the remaining days he was at home with his 85-year-old wife, who can mostly fend for herself. In addition, the man’s eldest son, who lives in Yokohama, set up a care system for his father that included his wife regularly traveling to Obu to help out. On the day the accident happened he was alone with his wife, who dozed off, and he wandered out of the house and to the nearest station where he somehow ended up on the tracks.

Chunichi says there is no precedent for a railway company suing over an accident caused by a person with dementia, and the lawyer for the family said that the case could have serious repercussions for families with elderly members who have serious cognitive disabilities, since it means they could be liable for all sorts of incidents, and not just those involving trains.

In court the family said that JR Tokai should bear some of the responsibility since it didn’t prevent the man from getting on the tracks after he entered the station (presumably without a ticket, which raises another question). JR countered by saying it had “fulfilled all our legal obligations” with regard to track safety, and the judge agreed, adding that it was the responsibility of the family to monitor and supervise the actions of the old man.

But if families are monetarily liable for actions carried out by members who are senile, can they also be liable for members who are suicides? So far there doesn’t seem to be a court precedent for such a situation. It seems to depend on the circumstances, suicide or not.

For instance, recently a 40-year-old woman was killed trying to help an old man who stumbled trying to cross the tracks of the JR Yokohama Line. The old man survived, but there has been no report that JR East is demanding he pay up, maybe because the media reports on the heroism of the woman drowned it out or made the company think twice about possible negative publicity if it made such a demand in this case.

Then again, earlier this week a 47-year-old man was killed while crossing the tracks of the Tobu Tojo Line in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward. Witnesses say he was walking and absorbed in his cell phone when he was hit and didn’t notice the train, though obviously he had enough presence of mind to go through the gates, which were down. Now that guy’s family will probably receive a bill.

Government wondering how to tap burgeoning ebook market

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

No waiting

No waiting

It’s official. The consumption tax goes up to 8 percent in April, and the government is anxious to plug any loopholes. The most bothersome one is for ebooks. Though domestically sold ebooks, meaning those distributed by Japanese vendors from physical addresses in Japan, are already taxed, those sold from overseas are not, and the tax bureau is wondering how to correct this problem, especially now that the price gap between an ebook purchased from a foreign-based agent and one purchased from a Japan-based seller will widen, thus setting up a disadvantage for the latter. Market research company Daiwa Soken reports that in 2012 the government missed out on ¥24.7 billion worth of tax revenues from the purchase of ebooks from abroad.

Legally, sales transactions that occur outside of Japan are not subject to consumption tax, and the place of the transaction is determined by the address of the seller. So if you go to Amazon.co.jp and look at various books, you’ll notice that those which are sold by Amazon Japan have consumption tax included in the price, while ebooks sold by Amazon Services International do not. What the government wants to do is change the law so that the place of the sales transaction is not the place of sale but rather the place of usage, a tactic that some American local governments have tried with regard to sales tax. But sales taxes are paid at the retail stage, while consumption taxes are incurred at every step of distribution, so a Japanese importer adds the tax after the item arrives in Japan.

If a customer in Japan buys the book directly from overseas, no tax is imposed, but when the law is changed customs could add it because the imposition location is the user’s address, not the seller’s. However, since ebooks, as well as music tracks and software, tend to be purchased over the net it’s more difficult to monitor, if not downright impossible.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, the Finance Ministry’s plan is to strike deals with tax agencies abroad so that the consumption tax is added on when sales are made. Overseas sales companies who do business in Japan would have to register with the Japanese tax bureau. For large-scale companies with widespread presence in Japan and sales units overseas, like Amazon and Rakuten, which in 2011 bought the Canadian ebook seller Kobo, that shouldn’t be a problem, but there are dozens if not hundreds of smaller content vendors who will fall through the cracks.

Already, some Japanese language ebook sellers and other net vendors have set up operations overseas to exploit this loophole, thus causing concern for domestic companies like Yahoo Japan, whose president compared such competition to a boxing match in which Japanese companies “have to fight opponents who are three weight classes above them.” Eight percent can make a big difference, especially since Japanese ebooks tend to be priced high anyway compared to ebooks in other countries.

In that regard, buyers of non-Japanese language books have an even greater advantage in Japan, since Japanese publishers still enjoy government-sanctioned fixed prices for all first-sale books and magazines, regardless of when they were printed. Japanese bookstores cannot set their own prices and industry distribution rules discourage remainders. With the rising popularity of ebooks in the West — 20 percent of all books now sold in the U.S. are electronic as opposed to 8 percent in Japan — print books have actually benefited since people can seek out remainders and used books through Internet sales agents, and usually they purchase them for less money than an ebook, even with shipping included. That’s not the case in Japan, except for used books. But if Japanese ebook sellers set up agencies abroad they can corner the market.

Lower egg prices bad for producers, worse for chickens

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Which came first?

Which came first?

Over the summer the retail price of eggs has increased anywhere from 20 to 50 percent, which is a significant change for consumers but also for people who are pushing Abenomics and its focus on reigniting inflation, since eggs have for years been seemingly been impervious to price changes. At the beginning of May, it cost about the same to buy a package of 10 eggs as it cost to buy a package of ten eggs thirty years ago. As the prime buka no yutosei (best “student” among product prices), it’s one of those constants people took for granted.

However, the sudden increase was not entirely due to serendipity or natural market forces. In fact, the price hike was engineered in a bid to maintain market stability. In 2011 the agriculture ministry implemented a subsidy to control the price of eggs. Because a sudden drop in price can have an immediate harmful effect on egg producers’ bottom lines and potentially damage the industry as a whole, the ministry automatically provides funds when the wholesale price goes below ¥159 per kilogram. These funds are used to cull egg-laying chickens in order to reduce supply and put pressure on demand, thus pushing the price back up.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, in May the price dropped below the designated line and the subsidy kicked in. Producers receive ¥150-¥200 for every chicken they kill, and the ministry estimates that from mid-May until mid-July, when the subsidy was available, about 5 million birds were culled. Not all were thrown away. Many were processed and sold as meat, for which the producers can earn an additional ¥20-¥50 per bird, an aspect that makes the system even more popular among producers since it rationalizes the process of replacing chickens.

Usually, a hen becomes productive — meaning it starts laying eggs — 150 days after birth, and remains productive for about 500 days. The dropping off point for production can vary greatly from one bird to the next, so whenever the subsidy is in effect egg producers get rid of those older chickens that are borderline productive since it is monetarily advantageous to do so under the system. Egg production is a relatively easy farming method since it is all about volume. In the past ten years the average number of chickens kept by each producer has increased from about 33,000 to more than 50,000, thus indicating the loss of small-scale farmers and the dominance of corporate egg producers.

Of course, when it’s all about volume it’s also all about controlling inventory, which is bad for chickens. Besides the horrendous factory conditions that egg-laying hens have to endure, their fate is also subject to capricious market forces, not to mention natural ones.

This summer was one of the hottest on record, and a lot of chickens died from heat stroke, so even after the subsidy system was lifted in July, the number of producing hens continued to decrease, sending the price of eggs to its highest levels ever. Moreover, one condition for receiving subsidies is that the producer not replace culled chickens for at least 60 days. According to JA, its Zenno Tamago brand, often used as the index for egg prices, was up by as much as ¥55 per kg on Sept. 27 compared to the same date in 2012. (For reference one LL-size egg is 70-76 grams, and one kg now costs about ¥225.) But chickens grow fast, so the price is expected to drop to its normal level by December’s Christmas cake season.

Where there’s a will: Attitudes toward inheritance change

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Who'll be the next in line?

Who’ll be the next in line?

About a million people die every year in Japan, and 10 percent of them leave wills (yuigonsho). That’s a smaller portion than in the English-speaking West — the BBC says about a third of British adults have wills and USA Today reports 59 percent of American baby boomers have written them — but it’s still larger than other Asian countries (about 1 percent in South Korea) and the number is growing every year.

Legal experts advocate wills as the only effective means of properly disposing of one’s assets after death, but in Japan they’ve traditionally been seen as disruptive. Japanese law outlines methods of inheritance and even stipulates shares for specific family relationships. But family ties have been strained in recent decades owing to shifting social demographics and economic trends. A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun reports that more and more people are dying without any clear beneficiaries. In 2012, ¥37.5 billion left behind by people who died was taken by the government because the deceased had no family willing to claim the body and the person’s property. According to the Supreme Court, this amount is three times what it was a decade ago.

When a person dies without spouses or children, or when those heirs have forfeited their right to the deceased’s assets, the proper court appoints an administrator to dispose of the estate. If the deceased had debts, the administrator repays them out of the available assets. If the deceased had a caregiver, the administrator may offer the person part of those assets. But for the most part the unclaimed money and proceeds from property goes to the central government.

One Yokohama lawyer in the Asahi article talks about his experiences as an administrator, which starts with going to the home of a person who has just died and “cleaning up.” He says he often finds large amounts of cash hidden behind or inside furniture, and now conducts seminars where he tells middle aged and older people about the importance of wills, partly as a means of showing their gratitude to those who helped them in life, regardless of whether or not those people are relatives. When the reporter talks to people who attend the lawyer’s seminar, some admit to having no contact with family and one says he feels compelled to draw up a will because he’s afraid of what might happen to his legacy if it all goes to his irresponsible son.

People in the West who don’t write wills are usually intimidated by the cost of lawyers or just plain scared of thinking about death. In Japan, while speaking of death is still a taboo for most people, the scarcity of wills can mainly be attributed to ignorance. The lawyer in the Asahi article implies that the authorities don’t promote wills because they make money when people die without heirs.

A recent trend that has boosted the status of wills is “ending notes.” Popularized by a hit 2011 documentary about a dying man’s last days, ending notes are books that help people think about their deaths. They explain different processes and often have diary-like features so that readers can write down their thoughts about death and what they want in terms of late-term care, a funeral and the disposal of their remains.

Ending notes actually compel readers to think about their lives right now by making them face the inevitability of death, and so rather than push away such thoughts they force the reader to consider measures such as DNR (do not resuscitate) declarations and last wills and testaments. Ending notes have also been commercialized to a certain extent, and some non-profit groups now hold seminars on the subject of shukatsu (final activities). Funeral homes participate in ending note plans and some banks even have programs to help people think about what they want to do with their assets after they die. According to a survey of people over 60 conducted by Research Bank, 49 percent said they wanted to write ending notes.

But ending note diaries are not legal documents. A will needs to be notarized if it is to hold up in court. One reason wills were previously unpopular in Japan is that when they were contested by family members, courts often sided with the plaintiffs, but that isn’t necessarily the case any more. According to one will-writing website, 7,767 wills were notarized in 1966. The number in 2009 was 76,436. Moreover, in 1985, Japanese courts heard 2,661 inheritance-related lawsuits. That number increased to 9,800 by 2008, and in the same year family courts nationwide received 154,160 requests for advice with regard to inheritance problems. More than 70 percent of all legal disputes over inheritance involve assets of more than ¥50 million. Obviously, you can’t take it with you, but older Japanese are now wising up to the fact that they don’t have to let it pass on to people they can’t stand.

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